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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Urbane - Lonesome Ride

Not sure I’ll return, but my dinner at the still relatively new spot in the 10th behind the Canal St. Martin, Urbane, was pretty satisfying. Co. left me high, but definitely not dry, last Friday night, off to an 8 p.m. flamenco performance, while I had a Gang Gang Dance concert slated at Point Ephemere on the Quai de Valmy. After reading the Simon Says installment on restaurants in the 10th – that is, in the vicinity of the Quai de Valmy – I opted for Urbane after reading how its main drawback was the rush to get you away from your table. Perfect, I thought – by my calculations, GGD would get on stage after another useless opening act by about 9:30 p.m., so if I reserved Urbane for 8 p.m., figuring on arriving a little early and being rushed out the door quickly enough, I could make it to the Point in time. No sense risking the typical Paris venue where the slow dance tends to be the order of the day. But, alas, my good plans, as we well know to be the case with the best laid plans, were doomed from the start. After checking out the concert announcements on lastfm.com before heading off, I learned that tragedy had befallen GGD in Amsterdam, where they kicked off their European tour a couple nights earlier. After their concert, an electrical fire effectively destroyed all their equipment, forcing them to cancel the rest of their tour. Disappointed that there would be no musical aftermath to my dinner, I nonetheless headed off to Urbane, after a few gulps of Knockandoo, at least armed with the knowledge that I could take my good old time.

As the first patron of the evening, I received a warm welcome from the Irish owner Audrey, who engaged me in a short conversation (in English, praise the gods!) about the book I had in hand, Stieg Larsson’s epic The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Two rather small separated rooms housing seating for around 40 gave off, as has been described elsewhere, a ‘shabby-chic’ aura. Small square tables covered by an interesting black & white table mat (see photo) upon which rested a quickly lit candle adorned the rooms. Pretty laid back, café feel to the front room where I was situated. By dessert, both rooms were just about filled, but it was still only Audrey and her one other person wait-staff handling all the action. Much to my appreciation, a basket of freshly warmed bread arrived - such a simple thing, to warm bread, hint, hint. As I am wont to do, I opted for the 30€ three-course menu.

Following a tasty amuse bouche (two small marinated squares of salmon), I started with the entrée of oysters a marche de Marene on a bed of vegetables and Japanese noodles. The description really piqued my interest, but in practice, it turned out to be rather disappointing. Arrayed on a small rectangular plate anchored on the left by an empty oyster shell filled with your typical oyster vinegrette, I counted a mere three oysters on top of the super thin white noodles with carrots and a few other assorted vegetables. This tasted good enough, but there was nothing very special about the dish. The week before, my entrée at Ze Kitchen Galerie included three oysters along with some healthy morsels of King Crab and a couple snails. So it wouldn’t have hurt to have included a couple more oysters at Urbane and spiced up the dish a bit. I’m not a chef, but I have faith in Audrey’s husband Olivier Maindroult, the chef formerly of Darroze and Choukroun’s. I should add that I almost opted for the haddock chowder, a unique dish I haven’t seen on other Parisian menus.

Moving on, I found the main dish more satisfying – pintade grille with thyme and a purée of potatoes, the dish heavily sparkled with pieces of pomegranate. The pintade consisted of a leg and thigh and was grilled to perfection – the pomegranate added significantly to the overall flavor of the dish. Not very exotic, but a solid choice. The highlight of the evening was dessert, a myrtle cheesecake. Try finding a good cheesecake in Paris – the real thing. This one came close. On my own lonesome ride out on a Friday night, I almost opted for a half bottle of wine before coming to my senses and ordering a full bottle, a 2007 Gamay priced at a mere 16€. Four-fifths down, the room started spinning and I yearned for Co. to kill off the last fifth of the somewhat insufficiently aerated bottle. Alas, she had answered the call of the flamenco and it slowly dawned on me that somebody at Urbane had probably come across Simon Say’s remark about being rushed. The service was excellent, but by the end when I was yearning for some fresh air, the pace had slowed to a crawl.

One big thumbs up for a concept I hadn’t encountered before in any of the restaurants I’ve reviewed to this point – between the two rooms, a DJ had set up to provide musical accompaniment to the meal. Now don’t get me wrong – in my book, Paris DJ and fine dining do not compute, and I would not like to see any sort of trend commence. But at Urbane, the music was finely chosen and unobtrusive – a lot of the unlabelled ambient and lo-core stuff I have on my trusty iRiver.

Being the sole lone diner makes one feel a bit circumspect, but I have an obligation to my readers and duty called. But it did provide a rare opportunity to concentrate a bit on the grazing habits of the so-called Parisian dining species. One interesting observation that struck me was how long some early arrivers had to wait before the rest of their table arrived. One couple sat at their table, stomachs growling to a frightening crescendo during the nearly one hour they waited for their empathically-deprived cohort to careen through the door. They weren’t alone. Fellow lonesome riders on a Friday night out in the City of Lights.

Grand total for one (lonesome me): 48.50 euros (with coffee)

12 rue Arthur Groussier 75010 Paris tel: 01 42 40 74 75 website : www.myspace.com/urbaneparis

Note : Ride Lonesome, a 1969 Randolph Scott (as Ben Brigade) oater, directed by Bruce Boetticher. Well worth a look.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ze Kitchen Galerie: St. Valentine Hits the Spot

This one has been on my radar for some time, I think dating back to when Pariscope used to carry the essential little Paris Time Out English guide in the back of the magazine. Better late than never, I reserved for a pre-V-Day dinner, hoping to avoid the Saturday night throngs out celebrating the big day for romance. Never one to hold superstition in the way of a good meal, I snorted disdain at the precarious warnings of Friday the 13th and booked a good three weeks in advance. The rest is history.

If being escorted to a corner table in the rear of the restaurant, sandwiched in-between the large glass separating the open-to-view kitchen and the couple at the next table close enough for us to sense the tremors of their beating romantic hearts is your idea of a romantic dinner, then ask for table no. 24 when you reserve. That was where yours truly & Co. were installed. But in fact, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The alternative was being sandwiched between four beating romantic hearts. As it was, the proximity of the table to my left gradually evaporated into thin air (assuming that ‘proximity’ is capable of evaporating into anything, pardon my grammatical construction, svp) with each subsequent glass of wine. Plus, I was too transfixed by the entertaining spectacle taking place in the kitchen on my right, for which we had a front-row seat. I counted a staff of eleven carrying out a finely choreographed routine of dish preparations, all under the watchful eye of chef William Ledeuil, who was awarded "Chef of the Year" by GaultMillau Paris Guide in 2006. On to the food.

As is my wont, I didn’t enter Ze Kitchen tabula rasa, but had done some reading online beforehand. What I learned is that this is another restaurant that tends to polarize people. Over at the Chowhound site, PhilD lamented how perplexed he was by the rave reviews accorded Ze Kitchen and related how ‘distinctly unimpressed’ he had been by a couple of meals there last summer, decrying out-of-balanced flavors and jarring juxtapositions of the restaurant’s benchmark east/west fusion theme. LikeFrogButOOOH responded that he never experienced those problems and generally found Ze Kitchen’s meals extremely well-executed. I have to put myself in LikeFrog’s corner on this one. Eschewing the 75€ (or somewhere in that ballpark) ‘discovery menu’—which our waiter described as a 3-3-2 tour of the menu (with half portions of ala carte selections), we opted for the ala carte trifecta (entreé, plat, dessert) to accompany our slightly bitter, but very satisfying bottle of 2005 Madiran ‘Meinjarre’ (22€ red, comme habitude). Feeling it impolitic to take photos of my soon-to-be-consumed food, I hereby present some previous Ze Kitchen concoctions, borrowed from A Moveable Feast's blog:

Ze Kitchen’s web site includes a now dated facsimile of the carte, but it should give you a general idea of what we were offered: two crustacé and poisson marinée entreé selections (huitres, King crabe, & bulots vs. St. Jacques Marinées), a selection of bouillons and pâtes, five choices of Plats à la Plancha, and a selection of desserts. We selected both of the marinated seafood/fish entrées (21€ each), the grilled cabillaud and shoulder/breast lamb plates (32€ and 34€, respectively), each of which was interestingly prepared—it is modern, fusion cooking afterall—and, sorry PhilD, balanced and refined. If I elaborate on my selections, at first I was a little perplexed at the oysters+King crab+snails marinated entreé, but it grew tastier with each bite. The presentation didn’t make much sense—where to begin?, etc.—but it worked anyway. I was left with a green sauce that I cannot begin to describe, but I sopped it up with my spoon, took another drink of wine, and started feeling my own beating romantic tremors. The grilled cabillaud was awesome. Grilled only slightly, the fish was lightly cooked to perfection and surrounded by steamed vegetables whose origins and names I could not begin to surmise. Let’s just say they were vegetables that had come from Planet X, but they were superb. But the highlight of the evening, by far, was the white chocolate ice cream Wasabi dessert (11.20€), which both Co. and I opted for after I happened upon some favorable comments online. Don’t ask me to describe it—just go and order it. You’ll find out.

On the downside, Ze Kitchen offers no amuse bouche to speak of, save a small bowl of tasty black olives, nor does it offer any interesting little cakes to accompany the end-of-meal espresso. For a Michelin one-star restaurant, you’d think that would be standard operating procedure, and it never hurts to put a little more effort into the little things like that. The restaurant itself is chic and finely appointed, but not snobbish—the fashionable crowd was pretty laid back and it was a comfortable evening, despite the closeness of the tables, and our waiter (who had the odd habit of sneaking up behind me) was young, friendly and helpful. The service, criticized elsewhere online, was flawless—plates arriving and departing on schedule and without much adieu. The table problem, by the way, can be avoided by double-dating—there were some more isolated tables for four scattered around the room. Finally, I didn’t mention why it’s called Ze Kitchen Galerie, but I assume that should be obvious from the accompanying photos. The restaurant serves as a gallery of a sort, with modern paintings lining the walls, all available for purchase. Ze Kitchen’s left bank next-door neighbor is another noted Parisian restaurant in the same price range, Les Bouquinistes—without exception, the Internauts agree that Ze Kitchen is your better bet. I haven’t yet tried the Bouqs, so I’ll pass on that account.

Overall, if you are tired of traditional, classical French cooking and up for some modern, unusual fusion, I recommend Ze Kitchen Galerie. Well deserving of its Michelin rating, we clocked in at a respectable 157€.

ZE KITCHEN GALERIE 4, rue des Grands Augustins 75006 Paris tel. 01 44 32 00 32
website: www.zekitchengalerie.fr

Monday, February 9, 2009

Kings of the Bs : Le Baratin and Bigarrade

The nouvelle vague (Bigarade) vs. the institution (Le Baratin), the former before the new year and the latter last weekend. Both visits were highly anticipated, given the laudatory reviews I’ve come across for both in recent months. I cut to the chase.

Bigarrade was a reasonable alternative to my first choice, last season’s absolute must(!)Parisian restaurant, Spring. You’ve probably already read about Spring in The New York Times, but less likely you’ve eaten there, unless you know somebody who knows someone who can swing a reservation for you. You see, the new trend in Parisian restaurants is minimalism, with a little ‘m’. So it’s dog eat dog to get to one of the 3 or 4 tables that comprise the dining room. I was informed by phone that I could probably get a slot sometime after 2011, so I kindly passed and dialed Bigarrade. Same concept, easier to reserve – I clocked in at slightly under three weeks, or as they say, before next Spring.

Like it’s minimalistic cousin, Bigarrade works on the Spring-like concept of fixed menus – 35€ or 45€ and that, mon ami, is all they tell you when you order. A visit to the web site won't help either - its been 'under construction' for months, but you can watch a cool little video there about the restaurant. Co. & I opted for the 45€, throwing caution to the wind – who knows if it will be as easy to reserve next time. This was a couple months ago, and I vaguely recall around six courses, give or take an amuse bouche here or a petit plat there. Our waiter refused at the end of the meal to give me a list of the courses, so I can only detail what I scrawled into my little cheat sheet notebook. But then, it doesn’t matter anyway – although perhaps some components will reappear, the set of courses changes every night. (Check the minimalistic gallery of photos below for some sample Bigarrade dishes.) So if you like the sound of what follows, don’t exactly expect to get it when you eat there. One standard, however, seems to be the initial offering, a kind of pre-amuse bouche – a small square of focaccia bread served warm with an intense olive oil. The only drawback to this tasty morsel is that there wasn’t more.

This was followed by the actual amuse bouche, a carrot mousse with vinagrette. Relying on my scrawls, I noted a foie gras with fig and honey jelly, torteu bleu creme de chou-fleur, truffaud de canard fieileté (sic), st. pierre avec petits legumes, etc. I know, this is a pretty lame description, but like I said, you’re not going to get it anyway.

Christophe PELE opened Bigarrade in 2007 and he pairs up with Giuliano SPERENZI as the dueling chefs. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into each course. I know this because the open-to-view kitchen was right behind Co., so even though I spent much of the evening gazing intently into her lovely turquoise gray eyes, I managed to watch the action in the kitchen out of my peripheral vision. Much experimentation with interesting ingredients, such as uzu kushu, mojama, fleurs de coriandre, aneth, mouron des oiseaux . . . Be forewarned, however, that I do not use the word ‘minimalistic’ lightheartedy. So, the courses were tasty, but when you desired to have a couple more bites, they just weren't there. Nonetheless, with six (or so) courses, you don’t exactly leave with the idea of popping over to Chinatown on the way home for some curried duck and nems. And before I forget – the dessert was, by Parisian nouvelle vague standards at least, pretty copious – an assortment of four different items that we were instructed to eat in a correct order - they got progressively better (how do they do that?). All washed down with a bottle of red, whose name has long since vanished into the nouvelle vague.

106, rue nollet
75017 Paris tel. 01 42 26 01 02

Next up was Le Baratin, a totally different concept from the trendy Spring and Bigarrade. Le Baratin is a Belleville institution, an old wine bar that has some of the top Parisian restaurant critics moaning in ecstasy. For example, François Simon, controversial food critic of Le Figaro, recently profiled in The New York Times: Here’s what Monsieur Simon had to say about Le Baratin recently (my thanks to Google translator):

“Simplicity out of wells, naked and tasty.

The address of the crazy food. Unbeatable.

Attention, you have to go to form, as is the rush "decibel."

Okay, that is how many French really talk, but I agree, something was lost in translation. Anyway, it’s the thought that counts, and his thought is that we’re talking here about one of the top bistrots, albeit a noisy one (re: decibel) in Paris at the moment. As is the rumor, this is where some of the great Parisian chefs come to sit down and dine when they’re not working. Elsewhere, Alexander Lobrano devoted four full pages in his Hungry for Paris book to Le Baratin, where he wrote a review that makes one take note. His ‘in a word’ summary: “A first-rate bistrot à vin in a far-from-the-madding-crowd location in Belleville. This is the type of place that Parisians guardedly share with friends. . .” And earlier, “a buzzy, unpretentious place with a smart, sexy, arty crowd, a fabulous chalkboard menu, and a slightly bluff style.” If you think these points make more sense than Simon’s above, it is because they were written in English and thus did not necessitate Google’s torturous attempt at sense-making. Still, does anyone out there know what is a ‘bluff style’?

If you read between the lines of Lobrano’s comments, the truth begins to coalesce. But at the outset, let me dispel the false notion that you will find a ‘sexy’ crowd at La B. Unless your idea of ‘sexy’ is those winter hunting caps with the stupid ear flaps hanging down. ‘La vie boheme’ indeed- ‘arty,’ yes, if we’re talking turn of the century I haven’t washed in three weeks kind of arty.

I may not rank up there yet with M. Simon, but here’s what I have to say about this unbearably over-rated bistrot, keeping in mind that our experience leading up to this ‘far from the madding crowd location,’ but not far from the madding parked cars part of town, was anything but pleasant and left us in a pretty foul mood before entering the restaurant. First, we got lost in the labyrinth of one-way streets in the Belleville area, then spent an inordinate amount of time until, praise the gods, an illegal place to park materialized. Forget legal – that’s more difficult than reserving at Spring before 2011. That done, we proceeded to check out la vie boheme. I definitely felt overdressed - maybe if I had vomited on my shirt before we entered, I would have felt more at home. The food was pretty good, but maybe only a couple notches above typical bistrot fare.

The reviews led me to expect creative wonders from Argentinian chef Raquel Carena. I won’t deny the word ‘sincere,’ used by another reviewer. Memorable? Not very. I started off with an appetizer of caille with grapes and nuts. It arrived completely cold and that didn’t seem right. After asking, I was informed that it was no mistake – cold by intention. I don’t have a problem with that if something magical materializes in the taste as a result. But the fact that I was compelled to ask suggests to me that it didn’t work as intended. I followed this up with a tasty lotte preparation, with a subtle tomato sauce on a bed of potatoes that did tricks with my eyes – it looked like rice, it felt like rice, but it wasn’t rice. The crumble for dessert was surprisingly ordinary. Co. liked her lamb, but that’s all she remembers.

I cannot explain the effusive reviews for Le Baratin. This is supposed to be one of
those real Parisian experiences. I don’t deny it, the two small crammed rooms, with interesting locally produced paintings on the walls say ‘Paris’ with a capital P. But what do you expect? It is Paris. Maybe it's just that standards have fallen so low. In a word, Parisian neighborhood bistrot, food above average, but certainly not gourmand by any stretch of the imagination. Three courses (me) + two courses (Co.) + bottle of red = 99€. Others have proclaimed Le Baratin the best lunch deal in Paris (15€), so if you’re going to try it, lunch might be the way to go.


3 Rue Jouye Rouve
75020 Paris
tel: 01 43 49 39 70
(suggestion : take the metro ! - Pyrénées)

Note : Kings of the Bs : Working Within the Hollywood System (edited by Todd McCarty & Charles Flynn) – one of the great books about the movies.
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